This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.
Even book-worms go on summer vacation…because let’s face it, armchair traveling is amazing, but sometimes you want to actually “be” somewhere. Not to mention, some of the best trips combine armchair traveling with real-life literary destinations. Short on funds or time-off? A good read can make even stay-cations and shorter trips more exciting.
Besides,who says vacations have to be on an isolated beach somewhere, or that summer reading has to be “light?” Like school, Time off is mostly what you make of it, and like any type of education is vastly improved by books. Fortunately, read-and-wander combinations don’t come in short supply–the possibilities are virtually endless. Here are some of my favorites for this summer vacation.
Follow in the footsteps of Tom, Huck and Twain in Missouri
Most people are familiar with Tom Sawyer and his best-buddy Huckleberry Fin–after all, they’re American “classics” not to mention required reading for most students at some point. Not nearly as many readers have the remotest clue about Missouri (unless like yours truly, they’ve lived there), and fewer still would choose it as a “literary” vacation destination, but they’d be silly to discount it.
In Hannibal, Missouri, readers can wander around Tom and Huckleberry’s stomping grounds–Twain based Sawyer’s fictional home town of St. Petersburg on the bustling Midwestern city where he grew up. Learn about the author’s life at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, hop the Mark Twain Riverboat for a turn around the Mississippi, or explore the Mark Twain Cave—strikingly similar to the one where Tom and Becky got lost. Less than an hour away, visit Twain’s birthplace, a tiny two-room cabin in Florida, Missouri where you can gawk at first editions and a handwritten manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Outdoorsy readers can set up camp near Hannibal at Mark Twain National Park, and hike, swim, fish and canoe to their heart’s content before curling up in their sleeping bags to spend the evening with Tom and Huck.
Wander in the Shadow of the Wind in Barcelona
Set in post-civil war Barcelona, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is almost as famous as the city where it takes place. This story within a story about the son of a book-shop-owner, a hidden treasure trove of rare books, a compelling novel and its mysterious author is an ideal read for bibliophiles.
If it’s not a truth universally acknowledged that everybody in Barcelona loves Carlos Ruiz Zafón yet, it should be. Myself, I may have been slow to convert, but there it is. Even long-time and somewhat jaded residents (me included) will confess that the city becomes more magical while reading the book. Plaça Catalunya, Barceloneta Beach, the mountain of Montjuíc, these places exist on the page and in real life, so why not the Cemetery of Forgotten books, too?
Like Zafón’s characters, you too can have a café con leche at the famous modernista restaurant, Els Quatre Gats, people watch on La Rambla, get lost on the narrow cobblestone streets of the Gothic Quarter and stroll along the wide avenues of Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood. Readers can download a brief guide and map of locations mentioned in the book at the author’s official website for the U.K.: The Shadow of the Wind-Walk around Barcelona
See the Magic of Greece first-hand with Mary Stewart
Greece has been a literary destination since long before the invention of air travel. The Iliad, the Odyssey, Medea, great adventures and even greater tragedies have been set in Greece for centuries. But despite a nearly lifelong fascination with Greek mythology, it was my grandmother’s worn paperback of This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart that first made me curious about modern Greece, specifically Corfu, where the novel is set. It wasn’t long before I snagged her copy of The Moonspinners from a dusty bookcase and started daydreaming about Crete. My Brother Michael cinched the deal with descriptions of Athens and Delphi.
So when I finally got to Greece, it was only fitting that I dragged My Brother Michael –a cherished inheritance– along. Decades after Mary Stewart wrote about it and years after I first read about it, Athens was strikingly different and much the same. Delphi, Crete and Corfu would have to wait, but Greece didn’t disappoint. The ambience, the food, the people and the landscape were there, just like in Stewart’s books. Without venturing far from Athens, ruins and ancient temples abound, set against a backdrop of mountains, towering trees and ocean views. Beyond the Acropolis in Athens, there’s Poseidon’s temple at Cape Sounion, and Aphaea’s Temple on the Island of Aegina. Of course, visitors with more time to spend in Greece (I was there only briefly for work) can trail behind Stewart’s plucky female protagonists on a tour of all of the sites featured in her books about Greece, including the navel of the earth at Delphi.
Step beyond the bounds of the French Quarter and Get to know the Big Easy
New Orleans may just be my favorite American city. It’s gritty and full of history, vibrantly alive, and strangely unsettling, or maybe that’s just the books talking. While I first fell in love with Anne Rice’s historical version of the city in Interview with a Vampire, I felt I really got to know it in James Lee Burke’s Dixie City Jam. There’s nothing quite like strolling through the French Quarter and wondering about the city’s dark underbelly, imagining veteran detective Dave Robicheaux swooping in to solve the crime and save the day.
That said, Burke’s books about Robicheaux more likely to keep you on your toes than spur you to explore corners of the Big Easy less-frequented by tourists. Even so, when you find yourself craving beignets with chicory coffee and milk, étoufée, or a shrimp po’boy after reading about what Burke’s cajun detective is eating, you’ll find good places to try these area specialties all around. Afterwards you can pull up a chair somewhere and stop to hear the music—apparently even the best detectives do.
Fall in love with India with Javier Moro
Of all of the places I’ve travelled to, in armchair and airplane, India left the strongest mark. While books I read as a child, like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess only hinted at its allure in a mysterious way, Javier Moro’s Passion India maintains that same mystery and sense of wonder while exploring the many faces of the subcontinent, not all of them appealing.
Although it has its fair share of beautiful beaches, India’s hardly a typical summer-fun-in-the-sun destination. Some sights will touch your soul with their beauty: women in dingy saris selling spices in large baskets by the side of a dirt road; white marble sufi shrines in the rain; figures draped in marigolds and precious gems in hindu temples; the Taj Mahal in all its glory shimmering in the sun. Still others will break your heart: skinny five-year-olds, their eyes lined with kohl, begging in the street; an emaciated old man carried into a crowded temple for a blessing. Even so, it’s all worth seeing for yourself. Noisy, crowded, colorful, India is overwhelming, just as it was for Anita at the beginning of the 20th century. Everywhere you go, it seems all of your senses are engaged simultaneously. When evening falls, back at their accommodations, a steaming cup of masala chai in hand, readers can escape into this unusual tale, based on the true story of Anita Delgado, the middle-class Spanish woman that became the fifth wife of the Maharaja of Kapurthala.
Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and a translator. She’s an unashamed book and coffee addict that travels every chance she gets. She also spends a lot of time playing with kitchen tools and art supplies. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, and check out her art at TriflesandQuirks.com.
Photo: Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis.